July 9, 1997 in Nation/World

Nato Welcomes Former Foes Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary Asked To Join Alliance

From Wire Reports

With a firm push by the United States, NATO on Tuesday threw open its doors to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, embracing as military partners three countries it once expected to battle in World War III.

The formal invitations were issued at a summit of NATO presidents and prime ministers in Madrid, where the United States resisted a vehement French campaign to also admit Romania and Slovenia. The expansion will give the alliance control of large territories near the Russian border, and mean that Germany no longer represents the Western military frontier in Europe.

President Clinton hailed the bids to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to join the alliance as “a giant stride” toward creating “a Europe that is undivided, democratic and at peace” for the first time in history.

“This is a very great day,” Clinton said in a speech at the U.S. embassy in Madrid, “not only for Europe and the United States, not only for NATO, but indeed, for the cause of freedom in the aftermath of the Cold War.”

Clinton has pushed for three years to extend NATO’s security zone east in an effort to stabilize the democracies rising there from the ashes of the Soviet empire. He says he believes that integrating them into Western organizations such as NATO is the best way to avoid inflaming European rivalries that led to world wars twice in this century.

But Clinton must still persuade the Senate to ratify this change in NATO’s structure. Even top White House aides concede that will be a tough sell, for it would extend the U.S. nuclear umbrella to new partners in a region recorded by history as unstable, and would cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $200 million a year for at least a decade.

Even to prevail in Madrid, Clinton first had to overcome internal dissension from several European members led by France.

Their objections were grounded in the belief that the greatest present threats to European security arise from ethnic and religious tensions in the south, such as those that have torn apart Bosnia. So French President Jacques Chirac argued for extending NATO’s reach there as well by inviting Romania and Slovenia to join too.

But Clinton blocked Chirac.

Clinton argued that Romania and Slovenia are not ready for the burdens of NATO membership because their young democracies remain too raw and untested, their militaries too primitive.

In the end all sides compromised. The 16 easily agreed to invite the three, and settled for commending Romania and Slovenia for making great progress and promising to consider them for possible NATO membership in the near future. Similar verbal encouragement was offered as well to the Baltic republics of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright cautioned reporters not to exaggerate the internal arguments. Of Chirac she said: “I think it’s fair to say that he presented his case very clearly and strongly, but there was not … a sense of stubbornness. … This was a meeting where there was lively discussion but not acrimony.”

NATO will negotiate terms of membership by this December with the three invited nations, working out details on how they must improve their militaries to make them compatible with Western forces. If all goes smoothly, they will be welcomed as members in 1999, when NATO celebrates its 50th anniversary.

First, however, the Senate and other national legislatures must ratify the deal. And leading senators of both parties, as well as an impressive array of foreign-policy analysts, recently began raising concerns about the pending expansion. Among them:

Will this antagonize Russian nationalists and strengthen antidemocratic forces there?

Will it draw new dividing lines in Europe, inflaming tensions between the “outs” and “ins;” Will it disrupt NATO’s efficiency?

Will it cost more than it’s worth?

The administration estimates the cost of upgrading and integrating the new members’ militaries at between $27 billion and $35 billion over 13 years, with new members paying onethird, existing European members paying about one-third, and the U.S. share not exceeding $200 million a year.

“This is a modest price to pay for strengthening Europe’s security, and that of the United States as well,” Defense Secretary William Cohen said.

Asked why the U.S. public would go along, Samuel Berger, national security adviser to the president, said Americans know this century’s history proves that “when Europe erupts in turmoil, it can spread into a wider conflict which implicates the interests of the United States.”

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email